Order, freedom and human flourishing

p15_circleAt the end of my first day at General Synod for ten years, it felt as though I had been there about a week, rather than just an afternoon and evening. Time goes more slowly for two main reasons: either because things are detailed and boring; or because things are intense and exciting. Both can be found in any session of Synod. A number of the items would be reported in The Week’s regular column ‘Boring but important.’ But at least an equal number involve engaging in vital issues which generate vigorous and passionate debate.

Three things stood out for me from the first day. The first might seem surprising—it was Evening Prayer after the formal business of the day, taken from the Book of Common Prayer. To encounter the profound and straightening theology of the BCP evening collects after nearly five hours of talking and debate felt like coming across a lush oasis, in the midst of the desert of activity, information and superficiality which has laid waste much of modern culture, and to be plunged head first into its clear and deep waters.

The second highlight was the encounter with many friends and colleagues from every part of ministry over the years. I realised that, coming back to Synod 15 years after first attending, I have spent quite a bit of the intervening time swimming around the fairly small pond that is the Church of England. As a result, I have met quite a few of the other fish and got to know many of them well. It was great to renew old acquaintances—but to start making new ones too. I feel very heartened to find that there are many fascinating, able and inspiring people here, and the next five years will be very challenging and stimulating, of that I have no doubt.

article-2235906-1621B8BA000005DC-619_634x424The third highlight was listening to Justin Welby’s Presidential Address to the Synod and response to question. (Note to the reader: this is not an exercise in sycophancy now that I am on Archbishops’ Council!). Questions are a regular feature of each session to Synod, and are an opportunity for anyone to raise awkward issues of anyone else. There were a couple of questions to Justin about the Primate’s meeting which would have looked to most like barbed weapons, lobbed across the floor of the chamber, designed to inflict maximum damage. But he embraced these questions as friends, welcomed the challenges, and thanked the questioners. Some have assessed the Archbishop as a consummate politician—but here he came over as a careful pastor, sidestepping the temptation to be drawn into a binary conflict, and living out his deep conviction about reconciliation in relationships.

The other half of this was the Presidential Address itself, which you can either watch or read for yourself. It was a striking, challenging and unapologetic exposition of the process of and statement from the Primate’s gathering—despite the misreporting of most of it in the national press.

The spin included such elements as saying that the Primates had had their phones removed, and that they were being treated as children. Even some seasoned journalists believed this and printed it as fact. It became quite a joke among us, with people waving their phones at me from time to time to indicate that my powers were limited. Neither were they treated as children. Secretary General, sit up and keep your hands still. [Laughter]

Justin located the process very clearly in the history of the development of the Anglican Communion, demonstrating how all the processes were in clear continuity with what had gone before. Yet at the heart of their time together was a profound theological and spiritual reality.

We washed each other’s feet and each prayed a blessing on the one who had washed our feet, before washing the feet of other Primates; a great contrast to what is often portrayed as the conflicts within the Communion. Many of us were moved to tears. [This] sets before us the reality of the Anglican Communion. It is the very work of God inspired by the Spirit, full of fallible human beings who must confess their sins and who require the comforts of the Word and the hope of the Sacraments and the example of the Saints and the shepherding of those called by God, however weak they may be, into leadership, if we are to be to the world the symbols of unity, which are our calling and purpose, and which will enable us to proclaim more confidently the Good News of Jesus Christ.

916Ni2Zu-7LIn the last part of the Address, the Archbishop reflected on the dynamics of order, freedom and human flourishing, stimulated by a chapter written by Tim Jenkins when Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, in the book Anglicanism: The Answer to ModernityJustin summarised Jenkins observations about the relation of these three:

Disaster has come whenever one element has overcome the others to an excessive degree. A hunger for power, masquerading as order, has very often overcome freedom, and neglected human flourishing. Order is essential, but it exists to assure foot washing and love, not domination. Certainly after the Reformation, and the religious wars that dominated Europe for the following 100 years or more, it was a sense of perverted order that led to the appalling cruelty which is almost without parallel in Europe until the 20th Century. The Church, confronted by modernity, sought power through order rather than human flourishing or freedom: it was out of these tensions that Anglicanism emerged, and from 1867 and the first Lambeth Conference developed a relational model of authority.

The Church in its order is meant to encourage the freedom in Christ that is promised, and human flourishing that is the vision of the kingdom of God. When the balance is wrong, and even more so when we feel threatened, like a ship with a dysfunctional crew heading for the rocks, different groups all strive to grab the wheel so that, as they see it, they may demonstrate that they and only they know the way to avoid disaster.

This is a powerful appeal, and the attraction to prioritise human flourishing seems an important protect against both the abuse of order and the indulgence of freedom. But is it the ultimate measure of what is good? I wonder if we need to go further. John Twisleton, from Chichester Diocese, offers a challenging review of the book as a whole, and Jenkin’s chapter in particular.

In the most provocative and concluding essay Timothy Jenkins presented Anglicanism as a Christian tradition offering both order and freedom yet subordinate to the end of human flourishing. He wrote of territorial embeddedness and conversational mode as distinctives of an Anglicanism, which serves human flourishing, which we call salvation, or the Kingdom of God.

The last sentence reveals the rather this-worldly nature of the book. Is salvation actually identical with human flourishing? Only in a transcendent view of humanity – and the book is weak on that to say the least, though not as weak as modernism, it has to be admitted!

Anglican pragmatism looks for what works and helps communities to flourish – but there are Anglican principles as well, not least those that witness the transcendent reality of Jesus Christ and applaud the countercultural challenge of scripture and tradition. Although the essays contain some references to Christianity as counter cultural the overall tenor is of a faith that engages with the culture by going with the flow.

Anglicanism is by nature inclusive and as such very comfortable about reasoned dialogue within a postmodern culture. To stay robust though it needs fresh consciousness of the wondrous momentum of the Christian tradition as a whole of which it is but part in space and time.

I think here Twisleton touches on a great paradox of Christian faith. In Morning Prayer at the start of the session we sang of Jesus, hungry and thirsty in the desert, and proclaimed our willingness to ‘suffer with him’. It has been quipped that, in the Old Testament, Proverbs says ‘Do this and you will be blessed’ to which Ecclesiastes replies ‘I did, and I wasn’t’. Jesus teaches his disciples in Mark 10 that they will be blessed when they forsake the comforts and securities normally associated with human flourishing. The Beatitudes look like a very indirect way to be ‘blessed’. And Paul, and James, and John in Revelation—all the writers in the NT—assume as evident that suffering and hardship are the way to wholeness. Our faith, according to 1 Peter, is so precious that it is like gold refined by fire—which cannot feel very flourishing to the gold itself as it goes through the process.

The paradox is this: humans only flourish as God intends when human flourishing is the penultimate, but not the ultimate goal of human living, both in the ordering of obedience to God’s commands and the radical freedom in Christ which is strangely realised in and through this—that ultimate goal being the realisation of the kingdom of God. One of the challenges for the Church of England is whether it will stay faithful to this transcendent, rather than merely human and humanist, vision.

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12 thoughts on “Order, freedom and human flourishing”

  1. Ian, if you haven’t already met him, may I ask you to seek out Ben Sargent, a young vicar from the south of England? He’s a very good friend of mine, and he’s had a few Biblical Studies articles published in some good journals. I’m sure he’d prove a good contact for you.

  2. Thank you for this article Ian.

    I think I you have hit the nail on the head with ‘The paradox is this: humans only flourish as God intends when human flourishing is the penultimate, but not the ultimate goal of human living,…’

    Words and phrases can be tricky things and ‘human flourishing’ is one of the tricky ones. My feeling is that some of those who press it as the core task of the church do so with the challenge to faith in Jesus either totally absent or, at best, rather down played to the level of all the other aspects of (20th century approved) flourishing. It’s one among many things and not the main thing….restoring the relationship with God. Surely true flourishing only be in (concious) response to God’s grace?

    Why is there this ‘Jesus shaped vacuum? I presume conversion is seen as unnecessary or as an unhelpful confrontation. Churches,rightly, are keen to serve the material or physical needs of the world but the evangelistic bit might loose them these social opportunities. It’s easier to fit in and have success measurable by ‘earthly’ values rather than pursue ‘kingdom of God’ values.

  3. ‘… a careful pastor, sidestepping the temptation to be drawn into a binary conflict, and living out his deep conviction about reconciliation in relationships.’

    This is such an admirable, if not prophetic, thing in a society that lives and breathes party spirit.

  4. My toes have always curled a bit when I hear that human flourishing phrase. It sounds rather sonorous and suggests that we should take it as self-evidently true although that is undoubtedly my own preconceptions speaking! It’s a useful concept when it serves another, eg when it talks about the HF of all parties in the ‘place of women’ debate. But it’s misleading and pompous when, as you say, it replaces the heart of the debate, which is living in obedience to Jesus Christ in love, kindness and service. Taking the attention away from God and on to our own comfort is never a good thing … and I agree with you, it feeds out of and into the general cultural assumption that we ‘deserve’ to have comfortable lives.

    • Yes, ‘human flourishing’ is a very attractive concept both in sound and in the positive picture which it paints, but I share your doubts. Indeed I now feel angry that it is being conscripted as a CofE buzz phrase which carries a tacit message that grace is all that matters. When used in that way it does in fact become partisan rather than something around which everyone can come together in agreement.

  5. I often hear the claim that “human flourishing” is the aim of the Church based on a John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Thus, they say, Jesus came that we may have happy, content and fulfilled in this world – despite the evidence that Jesus, is Apostles and the primitive Church suffered greatly *in this world.*

    They are misunderstanding the way John uses “life” in his Gospel. He does not mean that Jesus has come so that we will all be happy, content and fulfilled *in this world* but that we will have *eternal Life* – the spiritual Life of God. So in 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” And in 1:10-13 he explains: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

    He is not talking about human flourishing in this world rather the abundant *Eternal Life of God in them* – the Life that propelled Jesus, His Apostles and the primitive Church on to love God first, and to love neighbour as self, in a hostile “world” – so in John 16:33: “… in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

    • Not sure that I’d be so exclusive about the meaning of ‘life’ in John or indeed the rest of the scriptures (cf Genesis 2.7). It certainly starts with a spiritual *eternal life* as you say, but scripture is rarely so dualist and life in Christ, like shalom, appears to be much wider. Indeed the very use of the word ‘abundance’ suggests to me that it includes other diverse aspects of human flourishing – which flow from ‘eternal life’.

      • Drew, I think I would agree with you—at least in part.

        There is a strong strand in both Testaments of the importance of ‘peace and prosperity’. The situation in John’s gospel is a bit more complex though.

        You are right that ‘eternal life’ is not dualistically separate from life here and now. But it needs to be read in the light of John’s highly realised eschatology. It is the future realised immediately in the present, in a way that isn’t quite true in other parts of the NT. That lends at least some weight to David’s comment above, and we need to also note the sharp dichotomy in John between ‘this world’ which God loves but which is also opposed to God, and the ‘eternal life’ we are called to live now.

        So human flourishing might, rightly understood, be a part of ‘eternal life’. But it cannot supplant it nor be used as an assessment of it.

        • The Church in its order is meant to encourage the freedom in Christ that is promised, and human flourishing that is the vision of the kingdom of God.

          So, once again, the much-vaunted concept of ‘human flourishing’ wends its way into ecclesiastical parlance.

          It echoes a pivotal sentence in the College of Bishops statement on Pilling that provided the framework for Shared Conversations in the Church of England. It is this: ‘These conversations should set the discussion of sexuality within the wider context of human flourishing.’

          That phrasing was no doubt influenced by Archbishop Justin Welby’s inaugural address in which he stated: ‘by mission I mean two things. First, it is the conscious engagement of churches at local, diocesan, provincial, national and global levels with the challenges and issues that diminish flourishing of the human race…there is the love of Christ that constrains us, that drives us forward, and that, when allowed to reign and rule in our individual lives and in the lives of societies and communities, transforms structures and practices and permits human flourishing’

          As most here know, the quest for human flourishing or eudaimonia is a central aspect of Aristotle’s world view and Hellenistic philosophy. Strange that it now finds more resonance than blessedness makarioi: a state that, in the beatitudes, contradicts our immediate sense of well-being and meaning because suffering loss (of family affection, social acceptance and even life itself) in pursuit of what is eternally right has teleological purpose. ‘If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him’ (2 Tim. 2:12)

          Commonly, we use the phrase ‘in good spirits’ to connote mental well-being and that’s a transliteration of eudaimonia. One writer gives the literal meaning of eudaimonia as a state of ‘being protected and looked after by a benevolent deity’ (eudaimonia: Wikipedia).
          While Greek philosophers debated the means by which this state could be achieved, they all agreed on the goal of achieving one’s highest potential in the fullest command of our human faculties: arete, or virtue. Eudaimonia is self-actualisation.

          For Epicureans, to think that the gods would stoop down to concern themselves with and intervene in human affairs was an idea unworthy of their transcendence. Instead, the goal of life was to achieve enduring imperturbable contentment: one in which pain and suffering are minimised.

          In contrast, the Stoics laid greater emphasis on the moral qualities that constituted a virtuous being. Any well-being or actions associated with achieving virtue were secondary, as were the Christian virtues of compassion, forgiveness, meekness and self-sacrifice. The reason was that the latter might betray an overwrought concern for the fate of others.

          There is no link between eudaimonia and agape-love. The former says, ‘I shall extend practical help to others if (and only if) it contributes to the achievement of how we measure human potential’. The Greek concept of human flourishing would emphasise a significant measure of personal detachment in marked contrast to St.Paul’s ‘body of Christ’ theology.

          Notably, another writer explains the achievement of potential, i.e. virtue or arete in this way: ‘The concept implies a human-centered universe in which human actions are of paramount importance; the world is a place of conflict and difficulty, and human value and meaning is measured against individual effectiveness in the world.’ This is an attractive frame of reference for anyone seeking to make the gospel relevant to modern society, but is it Christian?

          In the gospel, the achievement of human potential is teleological and not measured by immediate temporal achievement, acceptance, affirmation, comfort or abundance (John 12:24). St. Paul claimed: ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.’(2 Cor. 4:7 – 12,16)

          Is this vision of the Kingdom of God suffering violence compatible with what human flourishing is commonly understood to mean?

          Also, by what standard could a person, like Paul, who is self-described as ‘hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down’ be considered to be flourishing?

          Yet, the Shared Conversations were held ‘in the context of human flourishing’.

          Christians also believe that their Messiah’s silence in the face of suffering was not prompted by a resolve to remain unperturbed by circumstances beyond his control. In silence, He fully resisted self-protection in order to fulfil the demands of divine honour on behalf of humanity. He was resolved to do the will of God, knowing that He would be vindicated in resurrection. So, far from imperturbable calm, He, who knew no sin, cried out in the agony of being made sin for us: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

          Most strikingly, the St. Paul’s hymn in Philippians probably represents the major fault line between Christian and Greek thought:

          ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
          Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’

          In the Greek world-view, there is no redeeming virtue in abandoning the pursuit of what is proper to one’s self-evident nature (the form of eternal God for the lowly form of man and reduced to the most repulsive death ever).

          If unquenchable life is proper to Christ’s pre-existent nature, to die is firstly wholly incongruous with that nature, and to be executed in such agonising despair is the penalty for not coming to terms with the reality of one’s life in the context of society. Such a death appears to serve no earthly purpose. Such an end would be more proof to them of unfulfilled potential, rather than virtue.

          For Greeks, to undermine what is true of one’s underlying nature as Christ did, for any reason, is unforgiveable. For Christians, it is the foreaste of Christ’s divine nature in us that leads us to prioritise the values of that ‘life to come’ over everything else.

          Christ said: Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’

          I wonder how that squares with the Archbishop’s concept of human flourishing?

          • David, thanks for this really helpful reply. I was planning to repost the comments you made a couple of years ago on Peter Ould’s blog, but I think you have saved me the trouble.

            at one level, ‘human flourishing’ does have a bridging, apologetic value, since it is language people can relate to. But, as you ask, is this really Christian language?

  6. I’m all for realised eschatology wherever it’s source. I suppose I was thinking about a phrase David Watson, and later Howard Synder used to use that ‘the Kingdom of God is Creation healed.’ That linked with a proper evangelical commitment to a ‘social gospel’ and a concern for ‘justice and peace in creation’ which would have a profound effect on human flourishing.

    As I said, this all flows from the centre which is our justification with God in Christ, so I’m not suggesting it should ‘supplant’ or take over from our basic human need to receive eternal life in Christ.


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